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Lakes, rivers and ribs

When you pull into Princeton, Ky., on a Friday night and it’s time to eat, just follow the crowd. They’re headed to Pagliai’s, a family-owned Italian food and pizza restaurant that just happens to be very close to the Western Kentucky Parkway. That’s a good thing, because even if Pagliai’s wasn’t convenient for travelers, they would still go there.

We stop there several times a year on our way to Lake Barkley, one of the two huge lakes that dominate western Kentucky. The other is Kentucky Lake. Both are massive impoundments that make this part of Kentucky a boater’s paradise.

Left to right: Henderson’s Audubon State Park; Paducah’s Carson Four Rivers Center; traditional Kentucky music. Left to right: Courtesy Henderson Tourist Commission, courtesy Paducah McCracken County CVB, courtesy KY Dept. of Travel

You might have to wait a few minutes to get into Pagliai’s, but we’ve never waited too long. It’s busy, it’s friendly, and it serves the best pizzas we’ve found in this end of the state. I’d say Pagliai’s could feed a full coach and never miss a beat.

Don’t leave Princeton without visiting its beloved Adsmore, a Southern mansion steeped in local and national history, now a living house museum. Former residents there include John Osborne, Wyoming’s third governor, and James Hazelwood Williams, the founder of the International Shoe Co.
(270) 365-9575

Great lakes and Grand Rivers

Afterward, it’s time to head for Kentucky’s version of England’s “lake district.” Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake are impossible to miss; together they represent 160,000 acres of water and shoreline. Dozens of marinas and resorts, plus three state resort parks, make these lakes among the busiest in the central United States.

From Princeton, it’s only 30 minutes or so to one of these lakes’ most popular small towns: Grand Rivers.

Grand Rivers sits right between the two lakes, not more than a mile or so from either, at the northern end of Land Between the Lakes. Land Between the Lakes is a 170,000-acre federal preserve that offers superb options for eagle-watching, hiking and sightseeing.

I’ve heard many bankers and other group travel organizers talk about Grand Rivers. Their groups love to eat at Patti’s, an institution there. Just don’t show up without a reservation.

“Patti’s 1880s Settlement in Grand Rivers is actually a restaurant,” said Peggy Thompson of the Bank of Sullivan in Sullivan, Mo. “There are three reasons we love to go there: They have the best pork chops, there is a wonderful variety theater, and behind the restaurant is an 1880s town with wonderful little shops. And there’s a great lake there where the guys can just sit around and enjoy the view while the women do their thing.”

Even if you are a landlubber, the nautical shops and outdoor shops for fishers and vacationers that dot this meandering little lakeside town make for great browsing and gift buying. And as Thompson points out, many groups take in shows at the village’s Badgett Playhouse. This year-round venue offers wonderful family-style entertainment and makes the perfect end to a day in Grand Rivers. Most recently, the acclaimed Appalachian musical Smoke on the Mountain has been playing there.
(888) 493-0152

Barbecue on the river

Paducah is a river town. Less than an hour west of Grand Rivers, those expansive lakes give way to some of America’s best-known rivers. So, in Paducah, the water is different: It moves. And it never stops moving until it empties days later into the Gulf of Mexico.

In architecture, in spirit, in lifestyle, this is a “Twainesque” river town. It sits upon the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, and they, in turn, flow into the Mississippi River just a few dozen miles south at Cairo, Ill. Barges and tugs ply the waters daily; river commerce is as vibrant today as it was a century ago. A huge floodwall decorated with vibrant murals is all that separates Paducah from its muddy roots on the banks of the Ohio.

Paducah’s floodwall murals Courtesy Paducah McCracken County CVB

I was recently there as a guest of local tourism official Fowler Black for the Barbecue on the River Festival, held each September. Dozens of barbecue vendors, both locals and “brought-ins,” served up huge portions of barbecued pork, chicken, ribs and all the sides. A blues band sent riffs across the river while we enjoyed more that we could possibly eat, plus a few cold brews.

Black, a downtown resident, paints a vibrant picture of the buzz visitors can enjoy in this historic district of Paducah.

“Originally, downtown Paducah was these 12 blocks on the river,” he said. “We’re seeing the benefits now of adaptive reuse of many of these historic buildings as a result of a real commitment to preservation of this architecture. An event like the Barbecue on the River festival allows us to bring lots of people in who might not otherwise see this area and may not even know what they’re seeing. But they enjoy the atmosphere.

Paducah’s National Quilt Museum displays achievements in both traditional and modern quilt design. Courtesy Paducah CVB

“Paducah’s history began at its riverfront. I’d say much of what we’re preserving now came from a period that stretched from the Civil War to the mid-1900s, a century or so. The structural assets of this part of downtown make Paducah distinctive, and we enjoy showing that to our visitors,” Black said.

The barbecue festival we attended was within walking distance of the National Quilt Museum, a jewel in Paducah that has been a huge draw with groups for more than two decades. This contemporary facility offers more than 30,000 square feet of exhibit and workshop space for visitors to enjoy. In the past year, it was named America’s official quilt museum by Congress, and each April, it hosts the American Quilters Society’s national exhibit.

Black arranged a brief visit for us at the Carson Four Rivers Center, Paducah’s acclaimed performing-arts theater, and we sneaked in to watch an orchestra from Murray State University play to a full house. Then we slipped upstairs and outside to enjoy the nighttime views of the river on this magnificent center’s rooftop patio.
(800) 723-8224

Smashed, spanked and sizzled

Since you’re already on the Ohio River, you might as well hit a couple of other Kentucky river towns that draw a lot of interest. But before you do, I suggest you make one more stop in a town an hour or so down the road.

Hopkinsville is my hometown, but even if it weren’t, I’d have to slide by there occasionally, like many others from out of town do. Why? Ferrell’s hamburgers, an institution in Kentucky’s culinary realm. Ferrell’s has a plaque on the wall naming it an official heritage site of Kentucky. It sits right beside a picture of the Ferrell family matriarch laughing with President George W. Bush at a town meeting a few years back.

Ferrell’s Hamburgers in Hopkinsville Courtesy Hopkinsville CVB

Forget about reservations; this place is barely bigger than your kitchen. Maybe 10 people can sit out front, and maybe 10 more in the back. At Ferrell’s, you just show up and stand until someone gets up from the counter.

Don’t look for a menu; it’s on the wall. It includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs and chili. It’s the burgers you want. And if you can hit Ferrell’s about midnight, you’re in luck. That’s when the late-night vibe and eclectic crowd really kick in.

If you go, remember one thing: At Ferrell’s, your choices are mustard, ketchup, onions and pickles; don’t embarrass yourself by asking for lettuce or tomato. If there’s a place in America where it’s more fun to watch your burgers being smashed, spanked, sizzled and served, I don’t know where it is.

Be sure to visit the Trail of Tears Park in Hopkinsville. It is one of the most significant sites on the historic Cherokee Trail of Tears. Forced to leave their homelands of Georgia and the Carolinas, thousands of Cherokee Indians walked in 1838 and 1839 to lands in Oklahoma.

“This was a tragedy in American history,” said Cheryl Cook of the Hopkinsville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our park here includes the burial sites of two chieftains, White Path and Fly Smith, who died on this forced migration to the West. They were given a family plot by a local citizen who recognized the significance of their deaths to their people.”
(800) 842-9959

Audubon’s retreat

About 75 miles and 200 years away from “Hoptown” in Henderson, Ky., John James Audubon spent about a decade of his life creating one of the art world’s iconic works. The preeminent painter lived in a cabin near the Ohio River, studying birds, working in the woods, befriending Native Americans and sending his frontier art to Europe.

Audubon was an earlyday Renaissance man and an accomplished outdoorsman.

“He was as much a naturalist as he was an artist,” said Mark Kellen, who manages the John James Audubon State Park in Henderson. “We’re talking about the early 1800s, and he was an accomplished outdoorsman who earned the Indians’ respect. Our museum has a full set of Indian dress that was given to him by native Indians.”

Audubon State Park in Henderson Courtesy KY Dept. of Travel

“Hunting, fishing, drawing and music occupied my every moment,” Audubon wrote late in life. “Cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.”

His Birds of America, published in 1826 at the astronomical price for that day of $115,600, was acclaimed abroad and at home as a masterwork. Almost two centuries later, the work is still considered one of the finest collections of American art ever published.

Today, John James Audubon State Park sits near that site and houses the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world. The park is a charming enclave outside the city along the banks of the Ohio River, and its stately museum draws birding and art enthusiasts from around the world to this charming river town.
(800) 648-3128

Chicken, mutton and burgoo

Your trip through western Kentucky ends in Owenboro, long regarded as Kentucky’s barbecue capital. The Ohio River town has held the International Bar-B-Q Festival each May for more than 30 years. Like many in America, the event began as a local custom and took on a life of its own over the years.

For generations, Catholic parishes around Owensboro held informal picnics in the spring and summer. Most area farmers raised sheep in addition to various crops, and the sheep were a primary source of food for their families.

Sheep make mutton, a particularly flavorful meat, and mutton makes great barbecue. Over the years, chicken has been added to the mix, plus burgoo, a delightful “stew” that is served with barbecue all over Kentucky. Burgoo typically consists of mutton, chicken, potatoes, corn, lima beans and other fresh ingredients from local farms.

Burgoo is a special Kentucky stew that is often served with barbecue in the western part of the state. Courtesy KY Dept. of Travel

“The use of mutton at this festival began more than 30 years ago and came from these nearby churches and farms,” said Karen Miller of the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For generations, these churches have had picnics, and at some point they decided to have a competition for the best mutton, chicken and burgoo.”

Over the years, Protestant churches, local businesses and even out-of-town teams began to also show up to try and win the coveted Governor’s Cup for the best barbecue in western Kentucky. The huge event now regularly draws 50,000 rabid barbecue fans each year, who come to enjoy their shared passion as “mutton gluttons.”

Bluegrass music also makes its home in Owensboro thanks to Bill Monroe of nearby Rosine, who is universally considered the “father” of this musical derivative from earlier Appalachian roots music. The banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass fiddle are the instruments that drive this popular genre. The International Bluegrass Music Museum resides in Owensboro, right on the Ohio River.

If you can’t be in Owensboro in May for the barbecue festival, just come any time.  The Moonlite, Old Hickory and several other famous barbecue restaurants make this town a Kentucky staple 365 days a year.
(800) 489-1131

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.